Art – Sasha Grishin
Go East: The Gene & Brian Sherman Contemporary Asian Art Collection
Art Gallery of New South Wales and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, 18-20
Goodhope St, Paddington
Closes July 26
Where is the centre for the display of contemporary Asian art in Australia?
The initiative taken by the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation has been to adopt an Asia-wide focus, rather than a narrow Sino-centric perspective, and to assemble a collection of about 30 major objects, two of which are being gifted to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Gene Sherman has been a leading figure in the Australian art scene. For more than two decades she ran the Sherman Galleries, and now she has reinvented herself, and her husband Brian, as the Sherman Foundation and as a passionate collector of art. The selected artists in this exhibition include Ai Weiwei,Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, He Yunchang, Bharti Kher, Shigeyuki Kihara, Dinh Q Le, Lin Tianmiao, Daido Moriyama, Nortse, Eko Nugroho, Navin Rawanchaikul, Shen Shaomin, Song Dong, Charwei Tsai, Yang Fudong, Yin Xiuzhen and Zhang Huan.
This is not a survey of contemporary art practice in Asia - such an attempt would be silly and this has never been the intention - but the show presents some unexpected highlights by well known and some less well known Asian artists.
The display is divided between two venues, the Sydney Art Gallery, in the foyer and in the upstairs temporary exhibition space, and at the Sherman Foundation in Sydney. At the latter, the whole space is taken up by a huge installation and performance piece, Yang Zhichao's Chinese Bible (2009).
The installation consists of 3000 private diaries and notebooks dating from the first five decades of communist rule, 1949-1999, acquired by the artist from various flea markets over a number of years. It is a work of huge spiritual presence, and it took me a couple of visits to become acclimatised to the impact. There is a considerable variety and uniformity, where the covers speak of the history of Chinese ideology from Soviet socialist realist imagery, to the cult of Mao during the disastrous Cultural Revolution, to the more restrained designs in recent times. Each modest booklet becomes a record of a human life – a huge collective mass, a patchwork quilt of memories - as well as a gathering of individuals. The installation video of the artist scrubbing clean the covers of the diaries for display has all of the associations with cleansing and revelation on many different levels.
The other monumental installation, held in conjunction with the exhibition, is Jitish Kallat's Public Notice 2 (2007). The first thing which strikes us is the assembly of large letters arranged on parallel shelves. As we look closer we may recognise the words of the entire address delivered by Mahatma Gandhi some 85 years ago, where he outlined the principles of non-violent civil disobedience. At the time he led the 400-kilometre Dandi March as a protest against the iniquitous salt tax imposed by the British imperial authorities on the Indian population. On even closer examination we realise that each of the letters is formed through a combination of bones (4479 of them realistically replicated in fibreglass), so the whole becomes like a huge collection of relics. The brutal simplicity of the concept enhances the haunting intensity of the installation. Most of the works in this exhibition question human identity and pose the question of what it means to be human and how we define the individual within a mass society.
Zhang Huan's Family Tree, (2000) consists of a series of nine large format photographs, where the human face is progressively obscured by black Chinese calligraphy.
Shigeyuki Kihara, an artist who combines Samoan and Japanese ancestry, explores the cliches of islander exotica imposed by Western colonialism, while Yang Fudong's Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest (2004), appears as a deliberately enigmatic creation derived as stills from a cinematic sequence which questions being and identity.
Ai Weiwei, China's highest profile dissident artist, confronts the beholder with a brutally simple installation, an overcoat with the artist's name embroidered on the inside. We are told that the artist distributed literally hundreds of these to the needy, who wore them for warmth, oblivious of the overcoats' other life as art objects. This is an exhibition which abounds with visual excitement and unexpected encounters, whether it be with Lin Tianmiao's fluttering badges or Navin Rawanchaikul's There is no voice (3), where there is an extensive display of old medicine bottles, each containing a rolled up photograph of someone from a specific community. Although not everything is immediately decipherable, a scholarly three-volume catalogue comes to one's assistance.
This is a rare and exciting exhibition which increasingly reveals to us the great creative wealth of contemporary Asian art practice. As one has come to expect from Dr Sherman, she is a person prepared to take risks and who backs her own aesthetic judgement. In hindsight, she has had an excellent strike rate and this selection of Asian art, I suspect, in retrospect, will be seen as a key moment in insightful and perceptive collecting of contemporary Asian art – in other words – works which will become iconic in the future.